ZIMBABWE’S looming food crisis has exposed government’s Command Agriculture shortcomings despite initial official claims that the country’s subsidised farmer support programme had produced enough grain to last several years.
BY BRIDGET MANANAVIRE
The southern African nation, which was already facing a poor season because of the El Nino induced drought, suffered flooding following heavy rains which left a trail of destruction and more than 133 000 people food insecure.
Before cyclone Idai in Manicaland, which resulted in the loss of lives and damage to property, government had already sent a distress signal requesting US$1,4 billion in aid for food assistance to cater for 7,5 million people or half the population in need of survival aid.
About 5,3 million Zimbabweans face hunger and are in need of food assistance, according to the latest data from the United Nations.
This appeal was made before the cyclone Idai disaster, which left thousands of households from mainly Manicaland and parts of Masvingo provinces in need of food assistance. Reports state that an estimated 90 000 people in nine districts, mostly in the eastern highlands, have been displaced.
While the Command Agriculture programme was introduced to reduce grain imports, Zimbabwe has nfood scarcity. Under the programme, government has been providing seed, fuel, irrigation and mechanised equipment to mainly smallholder farmers, who, in turn, are supposed to repay government by delivering five tonnes of their produce to the Grain Marketing Board.
The programme, which was launched in the 2016/17 season and has been prone to abuse by the ruling Zanu PF, government officials and military chiefs, was the centrepiece of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s campaign in last year’s elections.
Zimbabwe produced 1,149 million tonnes from the last season, which ran from April 2018 to March 2019, out of a target of over two million tonnes from 400 000 hectares of land. The programme had produced 1,3 million tonnes the previous season.
Zimbabwe currently has 705 000 tonnes in its stocks, including the 500 000 tonnes in the strategic grain reserves against an annual consumption of 1,2 million tonnes.
Deputy chief secretary to the President and Cabinet Justin Mupamhanga, who oversees the programme, said although the programme has experienced challenges, it had made an impact.
“Command Agriculture as I know it has been very successful; it performed well in the first two years. The third year has been met with serious challenges as a result of climate change. Our country has also been experiencing challenges with raw materials such as chemicals and fertilisers, all these are being imported,” Mupamhanga said.
“These are things we wish could be manufactured in Zimbabwe to make sure the bigger part of our inputs are local.
There are challenges facing Command Agriculture, but it is a programme which government accepts as leading us out of importation of raw material, maize, wheat, which sucked a lot of foreign currency. As long as there’s that political will, how can we declare this a failure?”
“The president pronounced himself on this issue of irrigation where he said 300 000 hectares of land will be under irrigation. So that process is underway. So when we talk about agriculture we must not focus on crop failure but also see what is being done to mitigate against this failure.”
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba said the programme had lessened the import bill, though it should at some time come to an end.
“One thing about Command Agriculture is it lessens the import bill. It has also resulted in the resuscitation of industry that supplies raw material and then there are facets of Command Agriculture mainly mechanisation, livestock, and that’s community empowerment,” Charamba said.
“I would not be dismissive of it, where I agree with you though is there must be closure at some point, it cannot continue indefinitely. There has always been a timeline to Command Agriculture. The only problem is that the weather has messed up that timeline, but we know that at some point, there will be less of state involvement and more of contractual agreements between farmers and commercial entities. Unfortunately in our situation, banks have not been forthcoming.”
Former Higher and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo has been critical of the programme, dubbing it command “uglyculture”.
“I’m not Jesus. But there was no evil greater than Command Agriculture which was used to steal billions from the people of Zimbabwe through fraudulent Treasury Bills to bankroll a military coup for which @MthuliNcube now wants Zimbabweans to pay for via his extortionate 2% transaction tax,” Moyo wrote on Twitter in October last year.
“We did not steal a cent from Command Agriculture. Like other farmers, we paid for the inputs we got. But billions were stolen from the programme via fraudulent Lacoste TBs issued by (former Finance minister Patrick) Chinamasa and via suppliers’ overcharging farmers for fuel, seed, and fertilizer and chemical inputs!”
The programme has been widely criticised as Finance minister Mthuli Ncube tries to push through a raft of reforms to cut off costly subsidies to limit public spending and according to treasury data, expenditure on agriculture has been one of the major components driving budget deficit.
Expenditure on the sector reached US$1, 1 billion as at August 2018, against an annual budget target of US$401 million.
Of this, US$238 million went towards Command Agriculture, US$263 million to Vulnerable Input Support Scheme and US$505 million to grain procurement.
Ncube said last year: “Of the US$1,8 billion Treasury Bills (TBs) issued during January to July 2018, about US$361 million went towards agriculture funding.
“While on the face of it, the TBs issued towards Command agriculture are a private debt, however, in view of the high default rate by farmers under the Command Agriculture, it effectively means that it is government expenditure,” he added.
“In view of the implications of the current model of financing, there is need to revisit the mechanism, with a view of lessening the fiscal burden which has a destabilising effect on the macro-economic environment.”